Dallas — Comedy is hard. It’s a cliché, but that’s because it is very true. Opera is also hard, which is less of a cliché, but equally as valid. When the great composers of the 1700s brought comic opera into the mainstream, it served as an alternative to the more serious, longform opera seria. So, to open oneself up to the experience of a modern interpretation of comic opera, one must be mindful of its purpose.
Mark Landson’s The True (not exactly true) Story of Thanksgiving, presented by Open Classical at the Four Day Weekend Comedy Theater, is a work that begs to not be taken seriously, true to comic opera fashion. Now, whether this is to its benefit or its detriment must be left up to the audience, and attendees to the Sunday matinee performance this weekend (at the 4DW Fort Worth location; there's another performance on Nov. 23 at the 4DW Dallas location) seemed to respond in the affirmative.
Landson’s work is a piece of historical fiction, telling the story of how the Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock and would later commune with the natives for the first Thanksgiving. In true operetta style, it features both spoken dialogue and singing, with a comical musical prologue played by pianist Thiago Nascimento and Brent Buemi on clarinet.
The musical numbers are not wholly original. Instead they are reinterpretations of some of the most famous and recognizable pieces from the classical canon. Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore, for example, is re-worked with new lyrics that ask, “Wouldn’t you all love to go on a cruise and sit snug by the fire for a Cape Cod winter?”
“Someone please bring me a Wendy’s bacon double cheese” outlines the pilgrims’ struggle with scarcity and starvation after settling the new world, set to the tune of Henry Purcell’s “When I am Laid in Earth” from Dido & Aeneas.
If the goal here is to turn the artform on its head and encourage a lighthearted approach toward its consumption, then Landson and his cast have done well. The vocal performances are small and not technically proficient, but they fit in the context. Baritone Christian Teague, who portrays a seductive Squanto, delivers with a solid, booming instrument that is pleasing to listen to, but sticks out from the more mellowed texture of most of the other vocalists. Likewise, soprano Alissa Roca’s Priscilla is neat and charming, with a sweet and angled instrument that rings brightly above the rest. Together, Teague and Roca perform in “Miss, couldn’t help but notice…,” a sexually suggestive and humorously pantomimed duet set to Mozart’s “La ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni.
Together with the five-piece orchestra, which consists of clarinet, bassoon, two violins, and keyboard, the cast of this show do well to strip a serious artform of its pomp in order to provide an experience that is light and easy. If one were to choose to take it seriously, there would certainly be criticisms, on a technical level. However, the feeling I get from the work is that no one would care. Thanksgiving is just a few days away, and for a seasonally appropriate and fun experience, The True (not exactly true) Story of Thanksgiving is a worthy distraction from holiday craziness. Besides, there are tons of Christmas-themed plays and performances, but how often do you get to see one about Turkey Day?